Cosatu: A giant falls

2014-11-18 15:00

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A Cosatu that is dominated by the public sector will fail workers on the shop floor

‘A giant is born today. Let no one stand in its way.” So said Cyril Ramaphosa at the launch of the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) almost 30 years ago.

Little did he know that just as he played a historic role in bringing together different trade unions of different political persuasions, he would play a role in the disintegration of Cosatu.

It is now common knowledge that Cosatu’s central executive committee (CEC) took a decision to expel its biggest affiliate from the federation for reasons that still have to be fully explained.

While its impact and implications still have to play out, there are areas that stand out as having an effect on Cosatu, the shop floor, the economy and governance.

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who is under investigation for a separate matter relating to a sexual liaison with a junior employee, refused to be party to a press conference to pronounce on the CEC decision.

He refused to sign the letter to Numsa informing it of its expulsion. Instead, he wrote an open letter to members through the Cosatu president, its affiliates’ general secretaries and provincial secretaries in which he tacitly challenged the decision.

This might lead to his suspension or a motion of no confidence, and his removal by the central committee, which is due to meet at the end of the month.

Cosatu members ask about the whereabouts of their general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, during a march in the Joburg CBD this week when some 2?000 members marched to deliver memorandums to the labour department, the provincial transport department, the office of the MEC for transport, the Gauteng legislature, the Gauteng premier, the SAPS and the Hawks to formalise their opposition to e-tolls and labour brokers
Picture: Daniel Born/Gallo Images

With Numsa being expelled, Cosatu is likely to encourage the establishment of a new metal workers’ union.

In fact, rumour has it that such a union is already up and running and is just waiting for the go-ahead from the labour department. This will result in a competition for members and strife on the shop floor as unions seek recognition and collective bargaining rights.

Just as some members may be lured away from Numsa, the union, based on its extended scope, as well as a possible new federation, will also lure members away from other Cosatu affiliates, especially those in mines, factories and farms.

The withdrawal from participation in national structures by seven other affiliates until a special congress is convened – in line with the request of a third of affiliates – is likely to lead to a further disintegration of the federation as Cosatu decides on their fate.

While it does not follow that competition for membership on the shop floor leads to violence, if history is anything to go by, it is likely to become a reality.

One just has to look at what happened after the formation of the United Workers’ Union of SA in the mid-1980s, Mouthpiece in the 1990s, Turning Wheels and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), to name but a few.

Another immediate challenge to the decision is what is likely to happen in the local, regional and provincial structures of Cosatu.

Will Numsa members be allowed to attend Cosatu’s locals – which have traditionally been a forum for all workers organised, unorganised and regardless of affiliation?

What is the status of those Numsa members who are office bearers in locals, regions and provinces? Are their positions made redundant by the CEC decision, or is that for the structures to decide?

What happens in areas such as the East Rand, Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, where metal workers are in the majority and are central to the function of the local and provincial structures?

What will happen to these structures if they are in agreement with the open letter by Vavi to ignore the decision and allow Numsa members to participate?

It does not appear as if these issues have been thought through and addressed. It is more likely that Cosatu leaders are likely to be denied platforms in some of the provincial shop steward councils that are likely to be convened to inform members of the decision.

There are likely to be rumblings about the decision even in unions that supported the expulsion of Numsa, especially as some would have preferred to have the matter discussed at the special congress.

Some of these unions, like the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers’ Union, are engulfed by internal problems with several provinces calling for the removal of the executive and for a congress. This has been ignored by the leadership.

From its inception, most of the members were drawn from mines, factories, farms and the retail sector.

While this changed with the advent of democracy, and new labour laws made it possible to organise public sector and municipal workers, most of the workers were still from the industrial sector.

The expulsion of Numsa and the withdrawal of seven other unions, especially the SA Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union, the Communication Workers’ Union and the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, make Cosatu a predominantly public sector federation.

In many countries across the globe, a public sector-dominated union in alliance with the governing party focuses more on the improvement of working conditions with very little focus on providing quality basic services such as education, health, policing, water and sanitation, to name but a few.

It becomes a feeding frenzy as they both have an interest in getting as much as possible out of the public purse by all means.

It is very difficult in such a situation to combat fraud and corruption, as it is in the interests of the federation and the governing party to maintain the status quo regarding political fortunes.

There is broad agreement that while much has been done to transform the South African economy, more still needs to be done, with some lamenting the slow pace of transformation on the shop floor.

A public sector-dominated federation will be in no position to focus on the transformation of the shop floor and the working conditions of employees in mines, shops, factories and farms, especially if they belong to a rival union or federation, as was the case with Amcu.

In fact, the immediate test is going to be if the minister, who will normally extend the wage agreement between Numsa and the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA, is going to do so now that Numsa is out.

Lastly, it is also possible that Numsa and the other unions – depending on the mandate they receive – might team up with federations such as the Federation of Unions of SA and the National Council of Trade Unions to create a new federation not aligned to a political party.

While this might seem remote, my recollection of the unity talks to form a single trade union federation fell through on the political policy of a new federation.

It is also possible that Cosatu, unencumbered by Numsa and other unions, might refocus its energy into building the federation and, as Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said this week, bring in a new era as opposed to it being the end of an era.

While it would seem that we have seen this movie before, owing to the previews we have had since Cosatu’s 11th national congress in 2012, I submit that we are only now seeing the opening scene, with its twists and turns still unknown.

Shilowa is the former general secretary of Cosatu

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